Defining biblical church discipline, when to do it, its purposes, and the proper spirit of Christian confrontation.
Confronting sin (church discipline) is a difficult business. Whether you’re addressing a harmful fault with a believing family member, facing an issue with a recalcitrant church friend, or otherwise bringing up a problem with a Christian brother, it’s hard to confront sin. But that fact remains, Jesus expected his followers to address sin in an orderly fashion (Matthew 18:15-20).
In this post, I aim to define biblical church discipline, when to do it, uncover its purposes, and finally review the spirit of a proper Christian confrontation.
What Is Confronting Sin: Church Discipline
“Sin is transgression of the law” as the King James Version of the Bible declares (1 John 3:4). Sometimes the transgression (read: breaking) the law is so severe it requires a confrontation. Much like the police apprehend a suspected murderer with speed and severity, some sins should be quickly and carefully addressed. The New Testament outlines how it’s done.
In general, confronting sin falls under the category of church discipline. The Bible assumes the sinner will be in a community when a confrontation happens. Those willfully living outside of Christian community do not show evidence of actual conversion (Hebrews 10:25) and hence church discipline does not concern them.
Jesus commanded followers in his church to rebuke sinners. He said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Simple enough. If your Christian brother does you wrong, then tell him. Rebuke him. Sounds harsh, but sometimes the direct approach is the best approach. If your brother changes his mind and repents, be just as quick to forgive him.
Most sins should probably be kept at that level with loving rebukes and ready forgiveness. But unfortunately that’s not always the case.
(Note: All people are sinners – this includes Christians – see 1 John 1:8. However, confronting sin happens when the sin has crosses certain boundaries. For brevity’s sake in this post, I’ll use the term “sinner” for erring church member.)
The Biblical Process for Church Discipline: Matthew 18:15-20
When the sin is greater and there’s less humility on the part of the sinner, the Bible institutes a more comprehensive confrontation plan. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus described a five-step process of confronting an erring church member.
- Confront the sinner alone.
- If the sinner does not repent, bring along 1-2 other people to confront.
- If the sinner does not repent, tell it to the church.
- If the sinner does not repent, the person is to be disfellowshipped or excommunicated.
- God blesses the process by sealing it in heaven.
The final part of the the earthly process leads to a break in fellowship between the sinner and the church. This should happen when the sinner is confronted alone, with 1-2 others, in front of the church and only when the sinner refuses to turn from their sin (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
What Sins To Confront in Church Discipline?
In civil law, not all crimes are treated the same. The punishment for stealing a box of pens at the grocery store is petty theft – a misdemeanor. On the other hand, shooting and killing the store manager is first degree murder, a felony. Each crime is wrong, but murder is more serious than pen-stealing.
Likewise, from God’s perspective some sins require direct confrontation. Here’s a brief list of sins that apply in church discipline in the New Testament. There may be other sins that require biblical confrontation, however these sins bear the distinction of being called out as requiring church discipline in the Bible:
- Sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
- Greediness, covetousness
- Reviling, Abusiveness
- Swindling, extortion
- Divisiveness (Titus 3:10)
The Spirit of Confrontation: Non-Hypocritical, Gentle & Careful
Church discipline is a difficult task. It’s hard to rebuke a good friend who’s going astray when the relationship is at stake. And when you find the courage to say something, you can say it completely wrong. Providentially, God gave us even more guidance on how to confront sin.
- Non-Hypocritical: In a very memorable portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned us not to be speck inspectors when logs were hanging out of our eyes. In essence, he didn’t want his people to rebuke others as hypocrites (Matthew 7:1-5)
- Gentle: Confrontation should never be harsh. The words and actions are harsh enough and should not be worsened with an aggressive tone. We are to be gentle whenever we confront sin. (Galatians 6:1, 1 Timothy 5:1)
- Careful: Paul warned any would-be confronter to be careful during a confrontation. There is an inherent danger in this activity, especially for ourselves. That’s why he said “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)
Wayne Grudem’s Three Purposes for Confronting Sin
Though this process may seem harsh in our often overly permissive society, this process is God’s prescribed way of handling unrepentant church members. Given our cultural context, it almost begs the question why God would put such procedures in place. There are good reasons why.
In his excellent work Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem provides three purposes behind confronting sin.
- Restoration & Reconciliation of the Believer Who Is Going Astray
Grudem reminds us that sin separates us from God and each other (Isaiah 59:2). Biblical confrontation is the means by which sin is properly handled and reconciliation can take place (Matthew 18:15).
- Keep Sin From Spreading to Others
The Apostle Paul tells us “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (1 Corinthians 5:6). In other words, the sin that a church tolerates, is the sin that will fester in a congregation.
- To Protect the Purity of the Church & the Honor of Christ
Christ’s honor is of the utmost importance. But when hypocrisy is exposed and found to be covered up, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). Biblical confrontation happens to protect the honor of the one we claim to follow.
In Conclusion: Church Discipline Whether or Not It “Works”
Church discipline is a biblical and necessary aspect of church life. Sometimes it works out beautifully (see Kicked Out of Church – How God Brought Me Home.) Oftentimes, relationships are broken and reconciliation is impossible. However, it doesn’t negate the importance of church discipline. In the Lord’s providence, church discipline is how God purifies his church and warns errant church members of the eternal dangers of unrepentant sin.
Jonathan Leeman’s A Church Discipline Primer
Steven J. Cole’s Dealing with Sinning Christians: An Overview of Church Discipline
Scarlett Clay: Kicked Out of Church: How God Brought Me Home
Jay Adams’ Book: Handbook on Church Discipline